Usually when people ask their server “what are those?” at a downtown New York restaurant, they’re referring to a lineup of pristine Wellfleets and Malpeques on the half shell, or the oxtail croquettes perched on the next table. But at Dirty French in the Ludlow Hotel, it’s more likely to be an elongated, meme-inspired “what are thoooose?“—as in, what are those flashy kicks on your feet?
The hitmakers behind the restaurant—Major Food Group partners Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone, and Jeff Zalaznick—are no strangers to bringing high-concept style into the food world. At Carbone, their throwback red-sauce joint in Greenwich Village, waiters in Zac Posen tuxedos wheel out trays of tiramisu and mix up table-side caesar salad. At the glassed-in Santina underneath the High Line, staffers channel the sunny Mediterranean vibe with crisp Rod Laver Adidas and Jack Purcells, while Converses match the casual style of Parm. The brand-new Sadelle’s pairs bagels with Timberland boots—now you know.
But it’s the footwear on the front-of-house staff at Dirty French that gets Zalaznick the most fired up: a hypebeast-worthy procession of retro Air Jordans bouncing across the dining room like its the hardwood at the United Center.
“It was always a dream of mine to open a restaurant where the whole staff wore Jordans,” explains Zalaznick, a self-professed MJ obsessive and the instigator behind this particular FOH flex. “It [finally] made sense at Dirty French because the restaurant has an ’80s theme, and that was the decade when Jordan started making shoes and sneakers started to become a big part of culture.”
Zalaznick—who showed up to our recent photo shoot carrying a giant duffle bag overflowing with shiny Jordan XIs and O.G. Military IVs—brings a collector’s rigor to the operation. The shoes are all dead-stock or rereleases, and they’re subject to a strict maintenance system: “They are all meticulously cleaned on a regular basis, and they get checked in and out before each shift,” says Zalaznick. Best of all, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel for servers who don’t want their work kicks to outshine their street shoes: “After a staff member has been with us for one year, they get a pair as a gift.”
It was always a dream of mine to open a restaurant where the whole staff wore Jordans.
While Zalaznick won’t disclose the cost of the Dirty French collection, it’s clearly not a product of a margin-hugging business: Consider roughly 15 or so FOH staffers at a time, plus restaurant turnover spanning more than a year, and the need to stock a constantly changing range of sizes. “We had to buy from a ton of different sources,” say Zalaznick—including resellers and local sneaker boutiques. A locked cage below the kitchen looks more like a sneaker fiend’s closet than a restaurant storage space: stacks of boxes holding Spizikes and Air Jordan 1s, with yellow sticky notes marking the pairs for various staff members.
The Jordan obsession runs deeper in the restaurant group than just the Dirty French floor. A chalkboard in the kitchen often displays inspirational quotes from His Airness, and a poster of the hoops legend hangs above the pass at Carbone. For chef Torrisi, it’s less about fanaticism and more about the We Made It aspect of the sneaker game: “These are the ones I always wanted but couldn’t afford when they came out,” he says, pointing to a still-crisp pair of Jordan Bred XIs.
For Major Food Group as a company, one of those We Made It moments crystallized this year when Dirty French got a visit from the ultimate VIP: Michael Jordan himself.
One staffer who waited on Jordan’s party of 10 remembers the excitement in the kitchen as tickets went through: “Fire a côte de bœuf for MJ!” “Clear MJ!” And Zalaznick sees the night as the ultimate culmination of his efforts, recounting how he bolted over to the restaurant and was greeted with the iconic silhouette of Jordan’s bald head in the middle of the dining room. “The place was electric,” he says. “We’ve had presidents in our restaurants, and it was that same type of thing.”
The big question, of course, was whether Jordan would notice the kicks. Zalaznick couldn’t stop wondering, but he knew it would be a hospitality faux pas to point them out.
Finally, at the end of the meal, he approached the table to ask how everything was.
“I love the food,” MJ said. “But it’s got to be the shoes.”
Meet the staff
Do they make you feel any different when you’re working? Yes! Getting to wear sneakers at work, let alone something as special as Air Jordans, is amazing. They are comfortable and a confidence booster.
What are the most common comments you get from diners? Guests normally ask where they can get the same pair I have.
Do they make you feel any different when you’re working? They are really comfortable to work in and give me more confidence.
What are the most common comments you get from diners? “Those are some cool shoes!”
Do they make you feel any different when you’re working? Yes—they are fun to wear!
What are the most common comments you get from diners? “You get to wear sneakers at work? That’s awesome.”
Do they make you feel any different when you’re working? Yeah—I don’t feel like I’m working.
What are the most common comments you get from diners? “Oh man, they were my first Jordans [Grape Vs]. I saved for forever to get them.”
Do they make you feel any different when you’re working? I feel like I’m contributing to the sneaker culture of the LES. Compared to [what I wore at] previous jobs, these shoes make me feel like more a part of the celebration with the guests.
What are the most common comments you get from diners? They get jealous. I get a lot of “rad kicks!”